Thursday, June 21, 2018

Hakon Skogstad's Two Hands to Tango

I'm not sure if this has ever been done before, or if it's even a fairly common thing, but it's incredible. On pianist Hakon Skogstad's new album Two Hands to Tango, he sets out to play some of the great tango songs of all time--on solo piano. There is no saucy string section, no Argentine rhythm section and--this is the amazing part--no bandoneon. This young Norwegian musician conveys the beautiful rhythms and feelings found in tango through a keen and precise sense of timing. He's so good at establishing the essence of this music that after just a few tracks that you'll no longer notice the absence of accompaniment.

Skogstad's decision to make this album was carefully considered. "As a performer of tango music I have always been fascinated by the unique sound of the bandoneon and how the instrument is used in solo arrangements and compositions," he explains. As someone who has worked extensively with bandoneon players in the past, he's uniquely qualified to adopt the mannerisms crucial to playing this instrument, which is "multilayered, flowing and improvisational." While he has plenty of experience with tango, it's with the piano parts. Playing the lead is clearly not the same thing, and it obviously took a lot of thought to transfer that style of performance to a very different instrument.

This approach is probably why the adaptation is so natural and believable. As I said, it's amazing that Skogstad is the first to think of this, or at least the first who turns his piano into bandoneon, not vice versa. That's not to say his playing style is odd--he's a brilliant pianist but his Steinway sounds like a Steinway--it's in the feeling. He's conveying the subtle techniques of the bandoneon in such a fluid manner, something that might not be apparent to someone who "likes" the tango but is not passionate about it. But if you know the difference between habanera and milonga, you can wrap your head around the magnitude of this effort.

Finally, I love the tango, and it's a real pleasure to hear songs other than "Por una Cabeza" when someone wants to show off the genre. (That song is pleasant enough, but it has become a cliche thanks to Hollywood.) We do get a couple examples of Astor Piazzolla's nuevo tango with "Tango del Angel" and ""Tistezas de un Dobles" which are Skogstad's tributes to an Argentinian master who has become notably popular in the last few decades. You also get "Sentimiento Tanguero," Skogstad's take on the music of Lucio Demare, and a unique arrangement of Leopoldo Federico's "El Marne." Whether it's one of Skogstad's original compositions or a homage, each of these ten tracks brim with originality and travel quite a ways from the original renderings--so much so that the "moments of realization" for true tango fans will be a singular delight. And if you're not quite up on your tango, this thoughtful and entertaining album might just prompt you to discover more of this wonderful music on your own.

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